Ill Met by Fog
The ancient city of Finlochen may have been as damp as a frog’s behind, with moss growing on every stone, streets pretending to be mountain streams, and fog that never lifted, but it was safe. Which was why Alice Standish hadn’t noticed she’d been followed ever since she left the city market.
When she realized the tick tick tick that followed her through the smothering fog wasn’t the plink of water dripping off eaves, she stopped and listened. The dense, clinging fog muffled most sounds, but that clicking was the sound of hobnailed boots, the kind that no one wore on these wet stone streets—not unless they wanted a broken neck. Alice’s own rubber-soled shoes made no sound except for a soft squelching.
Easy now, she admonished herself. Who could follow anyone in this bedamned mist?
It was probably a newcomer stumbling around, lost in the mists. Finlochen was difficult to navigate even in the brief periods when the fog lifted. Built between two sharp mountain spurs, it was a maze of bridges, tunnels, and houses built on top of houses built on top of culverts. Even the locals got lost every now and then.
Right. Just a befuddled newcomer. She took a tighter grip on her shopping—the net bag with her dinner in one hand, the kobbie cage in the other, and the leather portfolio clamped under one elbow—and started back up the mossy steps.
The tick tick tick continued to follow her, punctuating every step she took. Not hesitant at all, it was. The sound had certainty. Confidence, even.
She climbed faster. The boots kept up.
How far was she from her rental house? It had a stout door and good locks, and if she reached it first, she could barricade herself in. If he tried to break in the door, she could climb out her attic window onto her neighbor’s roof. From there, the city was hers to disappear into.
She passed a under a sodium street lamp. Its yellow glow penetrated the fog and revealed the antique shop that sold bits and pieces of pre-Silence curiosities. Alice breathed a curse. She was nowhere near her house. Whoever owned those hobnailed boots would catch her before she reached her stout, ironwood door.
But how was the owner of those hobnailed boots following her through this bedamned fog? She puzzled over it until soft chatter from the cage she carried made her huff at her own stupidity. She held up the cage and studied the pair of dwarf emerald kobbies she’d bought in the market. They sat on their perch, their tails entwined, and studied her back with bright, curious eyes. A moment of silence, then they broke into their chatter again.
Just following you two, aren’t they?
She scuffled her feet and dropped both the net bag and the cage with a bit of a thump. The tiny kobbies erupted into scolding, and she said, a bit loudly for the benefit of her follower,
“Just a moment, kobbies, caught my toe there. Let me pick up my dinner.”
Instead of picking up her squashed pork pie or chasing the apple that bounced down the steps, she ghosted on her rubber-soled shoes toward the shop front. It was closed, but there was one of those pre-Silence statues in front of it, all smiling and fat and benign. Some old god from the stars, but she thought it wouldn’t mind if she used it to escape a mugging or worse. Pulling her long skirts out of the way, she put the toe of her shoe into its raised hand and climbed up to the shop’s awning.
Cold water had pooled in it, but she curled up in it anyway, letting it soak the fine wool of her skirts while keeping the leather portfolio dry. The awning sagged between its poles, but supported her.
The kobbies still chattered indignantly. She’d seen them in the market and bought them on impulse. There hadn’t been much frivolity in her life, and even now she lived simply, but she’d known the moment she heard their happy chatter they would be perfect for her new house.
Her fingers closed around the portfolio with its all-important deed. She could lose her dinner, lose the kobbies, but she couldn’t lose this. Property ownership was so confused after the war that it had taken an order from Ned himself to cut through the red tape and get her the deed.
The ticking stopped. The kobbies’ chatter turned curious. Alice tensed. An ordinary person might exclaim in surprise at finding rare emerald kobbies abandoned in the street, but a pursuer might say…
A timid, questioning chirp?
Snorting with laughter at her own foolishness, she sat up. Fighting her wet skirts, which were trying to strangle her legs, she swung down from the awning. The wild kobbie, nearly a foot tall, with claws meant for climbing ironwood trees, waited for her, its ears laid forward ingratiatingly, its tail clutched in its tiny, human-like hands.
A bruised apple sat next to the cage.
Alice, moving slowly, knelt and offered the wild kobbie the apple it had returned to her. Its faceted, golden eyes brightened with hope. The scientists said the kobbies couldn’t eat the fruits and vegetables humans had brought from the stars, but no one had ever told the kobbies that. Even the dwarf ones thought sesame seeds were a treat, and they never seemed to take ill.
Besides, it was supposed to be good luck to feed them.
The kobbie let go of its tail and took her offering. Holding the apple, it bowed. She bowed. It darted back into the fog, its claws ticking on the stone of the streets.
Tucking the leather portfolio back under her arm, she gathered up the kobbie cage and her dinner in its wax-paper wrapping. Her wet skirts slapped against her legs as she started back up the steps. She’d have to put it in her drying closet or the wet wool would go all mildewed.
She stifled a sigh. Finlochen did have a brief sunny season, when the wind out of the desert grew strong enough to push the dampness back, but it was a brief season, a squib of a season, not worth the spans of unpleasant dampness that flanked it.
Dreaming of her new house in Middle Mesa, warm, golden Middle Mesa where the unmoving sun was never covered by clouds, she paid no attention to the return of the hobnailed boots.
A large, solid figure loomed out of the fog. Stumbling back a step, her, “hey, look out there,” died a quick death as she stared at black leather sewn with strips of wolver fur, manacles dangling from a studded belt, and worst of all, the crown branded on one stubbled cheek.
A bounty hunter. She couldn’t breathe.
“That her?” came a rough voice from the fog, and it broke her paralysis. She turned to run, but hands like timber clamps grabbed her. She twisted and kicked, but the bounty hunter knew his business. Within seconds, she was immobilized, her wrist locked high up her back, a heavy arm braced across the nape of her neck.
Breathing fast, Alice fought against the fear that rose up like bile. She wasn’t in any real danger. She been freed years ago, she could prove it, Graf Standish had no rights to her…
A second bounty hunter appeared out of the fog. Grabbing her chin, he twisted it one way, then another. He let his hand drop.
“Oh aye, it’s her.”
He gave her an unpleasant smile, snaggle-toothed and stained. “Well, little jacoby. Time for you to go home. Graf Standish wants to see you.”